When we launched SoKind Registry, our goal was to provide a well-designed, easy-to-use registry service for folks who want to plan celebrations that reflect their lifestyles, promote their values, and enhance their lives. We had in mind people who want to host more environmentally friendly celebrations, as well as people who don’t want to start a new chapter in their lives with a mountain of debt. We also wanted to provide a service for those who view their celebrations not as opportunities to impress, but as a chance to involve friends and family in important events that are truly personal and meaningful.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy for people to convince their loved ones that gifting “day-of-event help” (such as photography, catering, cleaning, etc.) was equivalent to gifting a crystal vase. We’ve been conditioned to believe that showing up to a baby shower with a beautifully wrapped box is somehow “better” than offering to deliver homemade meals during the first few weeks after the birth. So many of us have grown up with the expectation that, in order for a gift to matter, it must be new and expensive.
In her beautifully written upcoming book, Hands Free Life: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better, & Loving More, Rachel Macy Stafford writes about how she learned from her daughter how to let go of these types of societal expectations and to give the gifts that matter most. On my family’s SoKind holiday wishlist this year, I’m going to include a link to this excerpt as a way of helping my loved ones understand that, more than any new kitchen gadget or scarf, what my family wants most is more time spent together.
—Edna Rienzi, Director of the Beyond Consumerism Program, Center for a New American Dream
Excerpt from Chapter 9: “Give What Matters,” in Hands Free Life:
It’s probably safe to assume that at some point during your life, you’ve been given a gift from a child. It’s probably also safe to assume that the gift was not from a shopping mall or even put in a box with wrapping paper or ribbon, but simply presented with love. In my case, broken seashells, traumatized frogs, bouquets of dying weeds, and handfuls of rocks were presented to me in small, dirt-laden hands beneath a wide smile. Those were just a few of the unconventional gifts Natalie gave to me throughout her first years of life. At the time, I considered her offerings of homemade gifts endearing and did not try to dissuade her. But as she grew, her gift-giving practices expanded to people outside the family, and that’s when things got a little uncomfortable. I literally cringed at the sight of my child tearing through our kitchen junk drawer looking for the “perfect gift.” When she found it, she would beam at the broken snow globe or the used neon Sharpie as if she just knew the recipient was going to love it. Teachers, pastors, neighbors, and friends were bestowed with gifts found in the deepest, darkest, dustiest crevices of our home. While some people may have viewed her regifting practices as earth friendly and generous, my inner perfectionistic, appearance-minded self could only thing of the words tacky and cheap. I’d try to convince Natalie that she should shop for a gift with actual money, but she would have none of it. That wasn’t special, she’d tell me. I would end up attaching a store-bought gift to her homemade offering until one winter my Hands Free heart told me to stop, watch, and learn.
Natalie’s best friend, Catherine, suddenly acquired a dangerously high fever and couldn’t get out of bed. Within minutes of hearing the news, Natalie made a card and retrieved a beaded bracelet from the bottom drawer of our bathroom. I remember feeling slightly relieved that the price tag was still on the pearly accessory. By the end of the day, however, I was powerfully reminded that the cost and the condition of the gift were insignificant compared to the thought behind it. Catherine’s mother called to tell me how much Natalie’s present meant to her daughter. When the mother recounted what her child had said about the offering, I could not hold back my tears. With sincerity Catherine had remarked, “I bet a lot of people heard I was sick, and after they said, ‘That’s too bad,’ they just went on with their life, but not Natalie. She stopped what she was doing to show me she cared about me. She’s the best friend anyone could have.”
I remember struggling to swallow the lump in my throat when I heard Catherine’s profound observation. I quickly got off the phone and ran into the bathroom so no one would see me cry. Finally, I was ready to admit why my child’s gift-giving practices irritated me so much. Yes, I liked presents to be new and nice. Yes, I liked to make a good impression on people. Yes, I liked to stay in line with the way mainstream society gifted, but the real truth was much more shallow and much more painful. The truth was, Natalie was willing to give something I wasn’t. Her gifts were so meaningful to others because she put time and thought into them, and those were commodities with which I was not so generous. I was faced with an unsettling question: Could I really say I was living Hands Free if I didn’t ever give the gift of myself?
I vowed to find a way to give meaningfully, thoughtfully, and habitually the way Natalie did. I narrowed my aspirations to one of my strengths. I could gift words. I decided that whenever I felt appreciation, concern, or love for someone, I would make a point to tell him or her either verbally or through a written note. For nearly two years, regardless of time, schedule, and inner doubts, I dedicated a few minutes each day to express love to at least one person. It wasn’t until my family was about to move to a new state that I learned the impact of this purposeful offering. I’d posted a picture of the moving van on social media and told local friends to stop in for a hug if they felt inclined. I was shocked to see which neighbors came to my door and what they remembered most. One person said she would not forget when I called her from the Whole Foods parking lot just after she had her baby to see what she needed. One neighbor mentioned the birthday card I gave her where I listed all her positive qualities. She said she couldn’t remember being affirmed as an adult and it had inspired her to affirm other adults. Another friend recalled the time I stood in the driveway listening to her struggles as if there was nowhere else I needed to be. She said I followed up with a card, which she now kept in her drawer.
I finally understood the difference between the way I used to give and the way Natalie taught me to give. There was standard giving – giving with shiny bows, loaded gift cards, and elaborate gestures. And there was undistracted giving – giving your time and attention on a regular basis so that it becomes second nature, so it become who you are.
Perhaps the perfect gift is not in getting, but rather in the letting go. Letting go of societal standards…letting go of monetary expectations…letting go of perfection…letting go of consumer pressure…letting go of the need to out-do, impress, or check off the list. Let us give like the heart of a child – presenting the best of ourselves as if we were a carefully picked dandelion bouquet held out with love.
Hands Free Life releases on September 8, 2015. If you pre-order the book, you also get a free e-book of Hands Free Mama.